Clear desire to build relationships
A couple of months ago in my blog I was openly debating whether to attend the European Language Industry Association (ELIA) “Together” conference in Barcelona, held last week (read that post here). One of the reasons I eventually decided to go was to be able to see for myself and report here whether it was a case, as I feared, of translators being “fattened up” to be exploited by agencies or whether there was a genuine desire to work together with freelances. I’m happy to say that on that score the two-day conference absolutely convinced me of a genuine desire among most, if not all, the agency representatives present to find better ways of working with freelance translators.
That’s not to say the event was perfect. Some of the content left more than a little to be desired and some exploitative agencies were certainly present, notably an executive who announced in one session that “translators as we know them will have disappeared within ten years”, which would hardly be surprising given the pittance he was reputed to be paying the ones unfortunate or misguided enough to work for him. However, the balance was overwhelmingly positive.
It was the first time the ELIA conference had been thrown open to freelances as well as agencies (or LSPs – language service providers – as we’re now supposed to call them), and the organisers used a simple device to make productive networking a great deal easier: freelances translators were given red bags and tag ribbons, agency people had blue ones. So as long as I picked out a couple of blue-ribboned strangers to talk to in each lunch or coffee break in between chatting to freelance friends, I was sure to have a chance of finding potential customers. This I did and I’m now in the process of following up some of those contacts. All I can say at the moment is that there are good prospects for at least some of them becoming clients.
Of course, the social networking at conferences is perhaps the most enjoyable element. I was delighted to have the chance to chat to old friends and to make one or two new ones, as well as meeting some colleagues I’d come across only in cyberspace, such as fellow bloggers Claire Cox and Christina McGown. For a profession as solitary as freelance translation, the social side of conference life is not to be ignored.
But what of the content? Apart from a couple of plenary sessions, the conference ran three simultaneous lines of presentations, so it was impossible to see much more than a third of it. I concentrated on the “Relationships” line because that was supposed to be the theme of the conference, but in fact my favourite presentation came in a rare foray into the “Growth” section. Here, Gabriel Cabrera gave a very entertaining talk notable not so much for its content but for what it achieved: getting the whole room talking about the relationship between agencies and freelances. He did this with the simple device of getting us to tell the well known children’s story of Little Red Riding Hood (in this case representing a translator) and her struggle to avoid being eaten by the Big Bad Wolf (the dreaded agency). Explained this way it seems rather daft, but the result was some of the best discussion of the two days. A different but equally effective approach was taken by Marco Neves, who dealt with the problem of translators not following project managers’ instructions using a touch of humour and good helping of common sense. I intend to be blogging about this session at greater length over the next couple of weeks, as I will about the presentation by Lloyd Bingham and Andrew Morris about online behaviour by translators, a presentation that moved me to stand up and comment at some length, as I intend to explain next week.
Other sessions didn’t work so well and some were also misrepresented. The final panel discussion which purported to reveal the “X-factor” that makes an agency attractive to freelancers in fact dealt with the qualities an agency sought in freelancers. It also did so in an unfortunate, plodding way with four agency panelists all saying more or less the same thing. How much better it would have been to have combined one or two of these LSP representatives with the more entertaining first-day talk by the American freelancer Robert Sette, a talk billed as giving the “keys to effective relationships between agencies and freelance translators” but which in fact gave only the freelancer’s side of things.
This was one of many talks which were supposed to reveal the secrets of the freelance-agency relationship, but I came away from nearly all of them having learned very little new. Perhaps the truth is that there are no real secrets in a situation where both “sides” need one another. Agencies want good translations, reliably delivered as cheap as possible, and they want to know in advance that they are going to get them, which, together with the fact that some of them are hemmed in by ridiculous ISO red tape, leads to sometimes excessively demanding approval procedures. Meanwhile, translators want fair, human treatment, reasonable rates and prompt payment. If we can also get interesting jobs, that’s a bonus. My experience is that if all those requirements are met on both sides, the relationship will work. If not, as is too often the case, it ends in tears.
From what I saw last week, ELIA seems genuinely keen to develop, stimulate and improve the relationship between LSPs and translators. That’s why it was rather sad to see very few agencies or translators from Barcelona or Catalonia at a conference being held on their doorstep. Presumably for the reasons I mentioned in my blog when I was deciding whether or attend, they ended up with the idea the event wasn’t for them. I understand their reticence and suspicion, but after the two days I can assure them that this was an opportunity they missed. In the end, it was good to go.